Tony Cliff

Rosa Luxemburg

Rosa Luxemburg and the national question

Rosa Luxemburg, as leader of a workers’ party in Poland, a country divided among three empires – Russian, German and Austrian – had necessarily to take a definite position on the national question. She held to this position from its formulation in 1896 in her first scientific research work, The Industrial Development of Poland, till the end of her life, despite sharp conflicts with Lenin on the subject.

Her attitude was both a continuation of and diversion from the teachings of Marx and Engels on the national question, and in order to understand it properly it is necessary to glance – even if cursorily – at their attitude to the question.

Marx and Engels lived during the rise of capitalism in Europe, a period of bourgeois democratic revolutions. The framework of a bourgeois democracy was the national state, and the duty of socialists, according to them, was to fight “in alliance with the bourgeoisie against absolute monarchy, against feudal land ownership and the petty bourgeoisie”. [56] The greatest enemy of all democratic revolutions, they stated in 1848, was Tsarist Russia, and, second only to it, Hapsburg Austria. Russia, the enslaver of Poland, was the chief butcher of the Kossuth democratic revolution in Hungary (1849); Russia and Austria together, through direct and indirect intervention in the internal affairs of the Germans and Italians, prevented the complete unification of these nations. Marx and Engels consequently supported all national movements which were directed against the Tsars and Hapsburgs. At the same time, using the same criterion, they opposed national movements which objectively played into the hands of the Tsars or the Hapsburgs.

The independence of Poland would have had tremendous revolutionary repercussions, argued Marx and Engels. Firstly, a wall would be created between democratic revolutionary Western and Central Europe and the “gendarme of Europe”, Russia. Secondly, the Hapsburg Empire, shaken as it would be by a national uprising of the Poles, would collapse following national uprisings of other nations; all the nations of this empire would then be free, and the Austrian Germans would be able to unite with the rest of Germany; this would constitute the most consistent democratic revolutionary solution to the German question. Thirdly, the independence of Poland would strike a sharp blow against the Prussian Junkers, thus further strengthening democratic revolutionary tendencies in Germany as a whole.

Marx and Engels called on all democratic movements in Europe to wage war on Tsarist Russia, the chief enemy of all progress. Specifically they called on revolutionary Germany to take up arms for the emancipation of Poland. A democratic war against Tsarism would safeguard the national independence of Poland and Germany, hasten the downfall of absolutism in Russia and give a fillip to the revolutionary forces throughout Europe.

Marx and Engels, while supporting the Polish and Hungarian (Magyar) national movements, did not support others. Thus, for instance, during the 1848 revolution, they condemned the national movements of the South Slavs – Croats, Serbs and Czechs. They did this because they thought that these movements objectively aided the main enemy: Croatian troops, who hated the Magyars more than they did the Hapsburg Empire, helped the Tsar’s troops as they marched into Hungary; Czech troops helped to suppress revolutionary Vienna.

In all wars in which Tsarist Russia was involved, Marx and Engels did not adopt a position of neutrality or opposition to both contending camps, but one of militant opposition to Russia alone. Thus they criticised the British and French governments during the Crimean War for not waging war consistently to the bitter end against Russia. In the Russo-Turkish War that broke out in 1877, Marx again supported “the gallant Turks”. [57] To the end of their lives Tsarist Russia represented for Marx and Engels the main bastion of reaction, and war against her was a revolutionary duty.

Because of the criterion they used to judge national movements – their effect on the bourgeois democratic revolution in West and Central Europe – Marx and Engels naturally limited their conclusions regarding national questions to Europe (and North America) where capitalist development was more or less advanced. They did not, justifiably at that time, attribute the concept of revolutionary bourgeois nationalism to Asian, African or South American countries. Thus, for instance, Engels wrote, “In my opinion the colonies proper, i.e. the countries occupied by a European population, Canada, the Cape, Australia, will all become independent; on the other hand the countries inhabited by a native population, which are simply subjugated, India, Algiers, and the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish possessions, must be taken over for the time being by the proletariat and led as rapidly as possible towards independence”. [58] Engels thought it possible that India might emancipate itself through a revolution, but such an event would have only secondary importance for Europe. If India should liberate itself, “this will have to be given full scope ... as the proletariat emancipating itself cannot conduct any colonial wars”. But the idea that the emancipation of the colonies could precede the socialist revolutions in Europe, or even aid them considerably, was completely foreign to Engels (as to Marx). If India, Algeria or Egypt should free themselves, then this:

... would certainly be the best thing for us. We shall have enough to do at home. Once Europe is reorganised, and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilised countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. [59]

Rosa Luxemburg, in the footsteps of Marx and Engels, considered the national movement mainly European, attributing only small importance to the Asian and African national movements. Like Marx and Engels, she also rejected any absolute criterion for judging struggles for national independence. She was, however, no follower who merely repeated the words of the founders of scientific socialism.

Quite early in her political life she pointed out that the situation in Europe in general, and Russia in particular, had changed so much towards the end of the 19th century that the position of Marx and Engels towards national movements in Europe had become untenable.

In Western and Central Europe the period of bourgeois democratic revolutions had passed. The Prussian Junkers had managed to establish their rule so firmly that they were no more in need of aid from the Tsar. At the same time Tsarist rule ceased to be the impregnable bastion of reaction, deep cracks beginning to cleave its walls: the mass strikes of workers in Warsaw, Lodz, Petrograd, Moscow and elsewhere in the Russian Empire; the rebellious awakening of the peasants. Actually, whereas at the time of Marx and Engels the centre of revolution was in Western and Central Europe, now, towards the end of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, it had passed east to Russia. Whereas at the time of Marx Tsarism was the main gendarme suppressing revolutionary uprisings elsewhere, now Tsarism itself came to need the help (mainly financial) of the Western capitalist powers. Instead of Russian bullets and roubles going westwards, now German, French, British and Belgian munitions and marks, francs and pounds flowed in a widening stream to Russia. Rosa Luxemburg pointed out further that basic changes had taken place as regards the national aspirations of her motherland, Poland. Whereas at the time of Marx and Engels the Polish nobles were leaders of the national movement, now, with the increasing capitalist developments of the country, they were losing ground socially and turning to Tsarism as an ally in the suppression of progressive movements in Poland. The result was that the Polish nobility cooled to aspirations toward national independence. The Polish bourgeoisie also became antagonistic to the desire for national independence, as it found the main markets for its industry in Russia. “Poland is bound to Russia with chains of gold,” Rosa Luxemburg said. “Not the national state but the state of rapine corresponds to capitalist development”. [60] The Polish working class too, according to Rosa Luxemburg, was not interested in the separation of Poland from Russia, as it saw in Moscow and Petrograd the allies of Warsaw and Lodz. Hence there were no social forces of any weight in Poland interested in fighting for national independence. Only the intelligentsia still cherished the idea, but they by themselves represented a small social force. Rosa Luxemburg concluded her analysis of the social forces in Poland and their attitude to the national question with the following words: “The recognisable direction of social development has made it clear to me that there is no social class in Poland that has at one and the same time both an interest in and ability to achieve the restoration of Poland”. [61]

From this analysis she came to the conclusion that under capitalism the slogan of national independence had no progressive value, and could not be realised by the internal forces of the Polish nation; only the intervention of one or another imperialist power could bring it into being. Under socialism, argued Rosa Luxemburg, there would not be any place for the slogan of national independence, as national oppression would be no more and the international unity of humanity will have been realised. Thus under capitalism the real independence of Poland could not be realised, and any steps in that direction would not have any progressive value, while under socialism there would be no need for such a slogan. Hence the working class had no need for the struggle for national self-determination of Poland, and this struggle was in fact reactionary. The national slogans of the working class should be limited to the demand for national autonomy in cultural life.

In taking this position, Rosa Luxemburg and her party, the SDKPL, came into bitter conflict with the right-wing members of the Polish Socialist Party (PPS) led by Pilsudski (the future military dictator of Poland). These were nationalists who paid lip service to socialism. Lacking a mass basis for their nationalism, they contrived adventures, plotting with foreign powers to the extent even of relying on a future world war as the midwife of national independence. In Galicia, the stronghold of the right-wing PPS, the Poles, under Austrian rule, received better treatment than those in the Russian Empire, mainly because the rulers of the Hapsburg Empire, a medley of nationalities, had to rely on the Polish ruling class to fortify their imperial rule. Hence the PPS leaders inclined to prefer the Hapsburg Empire to the Russian, and during the First World War they acted as recruiting agents for Vienna and Berlin. Earlier, during the 1905 Revolution, Daszynski, the leader of the PPS in Galicia, had gone so far as to condemn the mass strikes of Polish workers, because, according to him, they tended to identify the struggle of the Polish workers with that of the Russian, and thus undermine the national unity of the Poles. It is only when one has a clear view of Rosa Luxemburg’s opponents in the Polish labour movement that one can properly understand her position on the Polish national question.

The struggle that Rosa had to wage against the chauvinistic PPS coloured her entire attitude to the national question in general. In opposing the nationalism of the PPS she bent so far backwards that she opposed all reference to the right of self-determination in the programme of the party. It is because of this that her party, the SDKPL, split as early as 1903 from the Russian Social Democratic Party, and never subsequently joined the Bolsheviks organisationally.

Lenin agreed with Rosa Luxemburg in her opposition to the PPS, and, with her, argued that the duty of the Polish socialists was not to fight for national independence or secession from Russia, but for international unity of the Polish and Russian workers. However, as a member of an oppressing nation, Lenin, rightly, was wary lest a nihilistic attitude to the national question should bring grist to the mill of Great Russian chauvinism. Hence, while the Polish workers could, and should, avoid demanding the establishment of the national state, Russian socialists should fight for the right of the Poles to have their separate state if they so wished:

The great historical merit of our comrades, the Polish Social Democrats, is that they have advanced the slogan of internationalism, that they have said: “we treasure the fraternal alliance of the proletariat of all countries more than anything else and we shall never go to war for the liberation of Poland.” This is their great merit, and this is why we have always regarded only these Social-Democratic comrades in Poland as Socialists. The others are patriots, Polish Plekhanovs. But this unique situation, in which in order to safeguard socialism, it was found necessary to fight against rabid, morbid nationalism, has been productive of a strange phenomenon: comrades come to us and say that we must renounce the freedom of Poland, its right to secession.

Why should we, Great Russians, who have been oppressing a greater number of nations than any other people, why should we repudiate the right of secession for Poland, the Ukraine, Finland? ...the Polish Social Democrats argue that precisely because they find the union with the Russian workers advantageous, they are opposed to Poland’s secession. They have a perfect right to do so. But these people do not wish to understand that in order to strengthen internationalism there is no need to reiterate the same words; what we in Russia do is to stress the right of secession for the subject nations, while in Poland we must stress the right of such nations to unite. The right to unite implies the right to secede. We Russians must emphasise the right to secede, while the Poles must emphasise the right to unite. [62]

The difference between Lenin and Luxemburg on the national question may be summarised as follows: while Rosa Luxemburg, proceeding from the struggle against Polish nationalism, inclined to a nihilistic attitude to the national question, Lenin saw realistically that, the positions of oppressed and oppressor nations being different, their attitude to the same question must be different. Thus, starting from different and opposing situations, they proceed in opposite directions to reach the same point of international workers’ unity. Secondly, while Rosa Luxemburg disposed of the question of national self-determination as incompatible with the class struggle, Lenin subordinated it to the class struggle (in the same way as he took advantage of all other democratic strivings as weapons in the general revolutionary struggle). The fount of Lenin’s approach to the national question, missing in Rosa Luxemburg, is the dialectic: he saw the unity of opposites in national oppression, and the subordination of the part – the struggle for national independence – to the whole – the international struggle for socialism.

Rosa Luxemburg’s strength regarding the national question lies, as elsewhere, in her complete devotion to internationalism and her independence of thought. This led her, via Marx’s method, to see how the position of Poland had changed vis-à-vis Russia between Marx’s time and her own. It caused her, contrary to Marx, to oppose the national struggle of Poland, but at the same time, and again contrary to Marx and Engels, led her to support the national movement of the South Slavs against Turkey. Marx and Engels had argued that to halt the advance of Tsarism the unity of the Turkish Empire had to be defended; and the national movements of the South Slavs, which were engulfed in Pan-Slavic ideas, and were blind weapons in the hands of Tsarism, had to be opposed. Rosa Luxemburg made an excellent analysis of the new conditions in the Balkans since the time of Marx. She concluded first that the liberation of the Balkan nations suppressed by the Turks would rouse the nations of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The end of the Turkish Empire in Europe would also mean the end of the Hapsburg Empire. Secondly, she argued that since Marx’s time the national movement of the Balkans had come under the dominion of the bourgeoisie, and hence any continuation of Russian influence was due only to suppression by Turkey. The liberation of the Balkan peoples from the Turkish yoke would not enhance the influence of Tsarism, but would weaken it, as these peoples would be under the leadership of a young and progressive bourgeoisie which would clash more and more with reactionary Tsarism. Thus, in the case of the Balkan nations, Rosa Luxemburg’s attitude to their national strivings differed greatly from her attitude to Poland.

Rosa’s lively independence of thought was tempered nevertheless by the weakness that lay, as we have seen in some of the questions already dealt with, in her tendency to generalise too readily from her immediate experiences to the labour movement elsewhere.




56. K. Marx, The Communist Manifesto.

57. Letter to Sorge, 27 September, 1877, Marx-Engels Correspondence (London, 1941), pp.348-349.

58. Correspondence, p.399.

59. Correspondence, p.399.

60. Przeglad Socialdemokratyczny, 1908, No.6.

61. Die Neue Zeit, 1895-96, p.466.

62. V.I. Lenin, Selected Works, vol.V, pp.307-308.


Last updated on 20.4.2003